Energy policy could dominate campaign
Soaring fuel prices and concerns about global warming have merged to make U.S. energy policy one of the hottest issues of the presidential campaign.
Republican John McCain suggests investing $2 billion annually in "clean coal" technology, building 45 nuclear power plants by 2030 and lifting bans on offshore oil drilling. Democrat Barack Obama proposes investing $150 billion during 10 years in "clean energy," including low-carbon coal technologies and wind, solar and geothermal energy resources.
McCain on Monday offered a $300 million prize for the person who develops a battery that "has the size, capacity and power to leapfrog" existing technology for plug-in hybrid and electric cars. Obama on Sunday announced a plan to "crack down on excessive energy speculation ... to ease the impact of skyrocketing gas prices."
Retired steelworker Don Jacoby, 70, of Franklin in Venengo County grumbles that much of it sounds like political blather. He has his own energy plan in place.
"We stay home more. We don't make any extra trips unless we have to," said Jacoby, who supports McCain. "My wife would like to go on vacation this summer, but I don't know we're going to do it, being what gas prices are."
Energy policy could dominate the campaign, said Morton Coleman, director emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics. "Two things around energy that are going to have an important impact on this region, obviously, are nuclear power and clean coal," he said.
Westinghouse Electric Co. in April landed the first contract for a nuclear power plant in the United States in 30 years. The Monroeville company, which employs 4,000 workers in the region and about 10,000 worldwide, will supply Georgia Power with two nuclear power plants for a site near Waynesboro, Ga.
In 2007, Westinghouse signed a $5.3 billion contract to build four nuclear reactors in China. To accommodate its growth, Westinghouse plans to move to a larger facility in Cranberry. Curtiss-Wright EMD is building a manufacturing center in Harmar to supply coolant pumps for Westinghouse nuclear reactors.
McCain and Obama are on safe footing calling for technology aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal. Scientists say restricting carbon emissions into the atmosphere is needed to help reduce global warming.
Coal is such an abundant and reliable energy resource, however, there's no question the nation will rely on it for decades -- possibly two more centuries, if reserves last -- to produce much of America's electricity, says Jan Lauer, director of 3 Rivers Energy, a regional coalition of businesses and organizations.
Coal-fired power plants generated about 49 percent of the country's electricity in 2007, according to the Energy Information Administration. Coal fueled 2 billion megawatt-hours of the 4.2 billion megawatt-hours generated last year.
Pennsylvania coal producers mine more than 73 million tons of bituminous coal a year, most of it in Western Pennsylvania, and employ more than 6,400, according to the Pennsylvania Coal Association.
"There is 25 percent anticipated growth by 2030 in the United States in terms of electricity demand. It will take all energy sources to meet the projected demand," Lauer said. "Nuclear is an alternative ... but the cost and time frame associated with nuclear will be such that that's a partial solution."
Plants with 104 nuclear reactors provide about 20 percent of electricity in the United States. Thirty-one states have commercial nuclear power plants, but nearly one-third of the nation's total capacity is located in just four states, including Pennsylvania, which ranks second among states with nuclear power capacity.
McCain's proposal for 45 nuclear plants by 2030 is possible, considering 30 American plants are in various stages of planning by a number of companies, analysts say.
"Clearly, the new construction is going to be a reality, because of concern over global warming," said Westinghouse spokesman Vaughn Gilbert. "We're hiring people here in Western Pennsylvania and other areas in anticipation for the renaissance. ... There are only two ways to get base-load electricity, coal or nuclear. Nuclear does not have greenhouse gases associated with it as fossil fuels do, so nuclear is often being selected."
Still, Westinghouse favors a "multifaceted approach" that increases nuclear power along with increased conservation, use of renewable resources such as wind and solar, and development of clean coal technology, Gilbert said.
Environmental groups acknowledge the use of nuclear power and coal plants with reduced carbon emissions is inevitable.
"Coal is simply going to be around for a long time. It's going to be part of the energy mix. The challenge then becomes finding a way to use coal that is climate friendly," said Tony Kreindler, spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund.
Nuclear power will be part of the mix, he said, but noted: "It doesn't mean that we don't have concerns. Like a lot of folks out there, we still have concerns about safety and security, about proliferation and nuclear waste."
Energy as an issue in the presidential campaign is filtering down to local campaigns.
McCain's push to expand nuclear power and advance coal technology promises to be such a welcome issue in Pennsylvania -- a key battleground state in November -- that Rep. Jason Altmire of McCandless, a freshman Democrat facing re-election, quickly embraced the Republican's position.
In an interview Altmire said his praise of McCain "is not a partisan thing." Altmire notes that Obama backs investing in clean coal technology and has said nuclear power should be part of the energy mix, though he hasn't proposed expansion.
"I would hope as the campaign moves on he'll come out more strongly in support of nuclear technology," Altmire said. He thinks energy, and how it affects the climate and voters' finances, is "likely to be the number one issue that people will vote on this year."
Former Rep. Melissa Hart, a Bradford Woods Republican trying to win back the seat she lost to Altmire, said his endorsement of McCain's position on coal and nuclear power shows "he's feeling pressure" on hot energy issues with big local impacts.
She criticizes Altmire for not getting behind the "No More Excuses Energy Act" that would encourage American refinery construction, invest in wind, nuclear and captured carbon dioxide energy sources, and allow "responsible exploration" for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and offshore drilling.
A poll released last week by Rasmussen Reports showed 67 percent of Americans favor offshore drilling and 64 percent believe it would lower gasoline prices at least somewhat.
Obama has vowed to keep in place the federal moratorium against offshore drilling, saying it would not affect gasoline prices for at least a decade and then only minimally. Obama instead proposes taxing profits of oil companies and using the money to pay for a $1,000 middle-class tax cut.